Stories in Stone from Davenport’s Oakdale Cemetery

The guy who invented Dairy Queen’s soft-serve ice cream.

A Hungarian count.

The first female professor at the University of Iowa.

And of course, the famous jazz man Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke.

It doesn’t take long to spot the famous names on the tombstones in Davenport’s historic Oakdale Memorial Gardens, including some that belong to the area’s founders and family members: George Davenport, Louis Le Claire and the industrialist Bettendorf brothers, Joseph and William.

But if your curiosity takes you a bit further, as local historian Dustin Oliver’s has over the last few years, you’ll discover all sorts of stories beyond the famous names. Oliver’s research into the cemetery’s archives led to the cemetery’s two successful nominations in 2015 — to the National Register of Historic Places and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom — plus a new chapter in the cemetery’s remarkable preservation.

His research diligently catalogued the final resting places of John Fremont McCullough, who helped open the first Dairy Queen in 1940 in Joliet, Ill.; the refugee Count Nicholas Fejervay, who built a house on a Davenport hill because the view reminded him of the home he fled on the Danube; and UI professor Phebe Sudlow, the country’s first female superintendent of a public school district. Oliver’s research also led him to the graves of 11 freedom seekers who escaped from slavery, plus the graves of prominent abolitionists, the co-founders of Von Maur department stores, a handful of state and federal lawmakers, and dozens of Civil War soldiers, plus at least one of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

Together, these names and the stones upon which they’re carved tell two parallel histories: a local one, about Davenport, and a broader one, about the way cemeteries evolved from the mid-1800s to the 20th century.

Oakdale Memorial Gardens (formerly Oakdale Cemetery) was established in 1856, when the city’s older municipal cemetery became too crowded. City leaders bought the original 40 acres for $500 and a hired a prominent landscape architect from Washington, D.C., to design it.

As the site’s shady oak trees grew, so did the plans for its future.

It’s “a product of the evolution of cemetery design and philosophy, from the mid-19th century rural or romantic cemetery, to the late 19th century landscape-lawn cemetery, to the early and middle 20th century memorial park,” according to the cemetery’s application to the National Register of Historic Places. Landscaped cemeteries like this one helped inspire the broader movement to establish public parks for everyday use.

Oakdale visitors can also see many examples of funerary sculpture, dating from before the cemetery’s creation (some graves were moved there from the older municipal cemetery) on up to the present day. The artwork ranges from elaborate Victorian mausoleums to more recent artistic tributes in the Petland section, where Davenporters continue to bury their beloved pets.

Today, more than 24,000 people are buried on the grounds, which now cover 78 acres.

Dustin Oliver plans to lead a tour of the cemetery during the 2016 Preserve Iowa Summit, scheduled for Sept. 15–17 in and around Davenport.

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